The concrete parade of St Alexander’s University College seemed stern and cold in the Monday morning rain. Ben jammed his new-starter’s paperwork under his suit jacket to keep it dry. Water eddied in the gutter, drowning an abandoned copy of the student magazine, Perspicio. A new life in research had seemed promising a week ago. Then again, Ben thought, any organisation that accepted him in it was automatically an organisation with unexpectedly low standards.
Coffee first, he decided. Latté in one hand, he deposited his paperwork at the security office. For this, he was rewarded with a white plastic identity card containing a yellowed photograph of his features frozen into an expression of bovine alarm.
His new card admitted him into the Library buildings, although the security guard frowned at the paper cup he held. “Staff meeting,” Ben explained breezily, and strode on to meet his new colleagues. Thwarting a uniformed gatekeeper gave him a fleeting sense of triumph. Once safely alone in the lift, he transferred his drink into his left hand and high-fived his reflection.
His new employer saw him waiting in the first-floor corridor. She stood, opening the office door with a smile. “Ben!”
Vera Cardigan was tall, favoured trouser suits and wore her hair in a dark bob which gleamed as though it had been polished.
First came the mantra of the new starter. “This is Ben Wilkins, Ada. He’s our new storage system administrator. Ada’s our student liaison officer.”
The office was large and open-plan; there were a good few people in it. He nodded and smiled at everyone from Ada, possibly, to Zanita, maybe, until Vera-Miss Cardigan-ran out of people to introduce.
She showed Ben to an empty desk. By the door, naturally. They’d given him a damaged office chair, slowly extruding padding through a threadbare cover. This was the sort of courtesy detail he was familiar with. It was almost comforting, really.
Ben made to put down his messenger bag.
“You won’t need a desk today!” said Miss Cardigan. “We’ll be touring the University data centres.”
Well, Ben reflected, it couldn’t be worse than a day in the office.
Later, he would deplore his limited imagination.
As they walked, Vera gave a running commentary on the state of things, occasional penetrating questions shot in for good measure. He remembered that, at his job interview, she’d asked for his five-year career plans. When he’d said he didn’t really have one, she’d somehow managed to radiate sincere-looking disappointment in his lack of ambition.
“The University’s going from strength to strength in our research achievements,” Vera said. “St Alex is a recent entrant into the league tables, but we’re gaining on some strong competitors and we have every expectation of an excellent showing in next year’s Research Exercise. Tell me, Mr Wilkins, what do you think our key challenges are as a modern research-active university?”
“Ben,” he said automatically. Then his brain caught up with the change of topic. He thought back to her remarks at his interview. “Staffing,” he said. “Data storage. Energy costs.”
She beamed as if he were a rat who’d successfully navigated a maze made up of two passages and a partially electrified floor. “That’s right!” she said. “Operational costs are a killer for a university with a specialisation in data science, so we’ve worked hard to develop an innovative solution to the problem.”
They stopped at a lift. She stabbed at the call button and said, as if admitting to an embarrassing personal condition, “You see, I wear two hats.”
Ben nodded sagely.
Vera said, “I am the Senior Librarian for the Information and Library Services department. Since our recent project in provably complete digital library service provision, I’ve also begun to work part-time with the department of Studia Generalia to establish an innovative research group, which coordinates activity across several university departments here at St Alex. You haven’t met Professor Whitloaf yet, have you?”
“I don’t think so,” said Ben.
Vera smiled slightly. “I think you’d remember if you had. Still, you’ll meet him today. He’s already onsite for our staff meeting.”
“That reminds me,” said Ben, “when’s the meeting?”
She looked at her watch. “We generally hold it around eleven, but we might start a few minutes late today. Once you’re on the IT systems, I’ll get Sanjit to put it in your calendar.”
He fished out his phone. It was already nearly eleven. “I thought we were going off-site,” he said tentatively. “Can’t be very far away?…”
The lift arrived. They stepped in. Vera selected the button marked B.
“You see,” she said, “This is where the innovation comes in. It was Prof Whitloaf’s idea, although several departments had a hand in its construction. We pride ourselves on our strong interdisciplinarity at St Alex.”
Ben drained his coffee, now quite cold. “Is it a nuclear bunker?” he guessed. “Or down a mine shaft, like a Bond villain?”
“Close-“ she said, but then the lift doors pinged open and she stepped out into a typical example of a university concrete car park, Elizabethan architecture circa 1972. A wealth of wires led down a nearby wall, sheathed in cable guides as wide as Ben’s thigh.
She selected a pathway between two slightly ageing Audis and a cluster of upturned L-shaped desks and strode off, sensible flat shoes raising little whorls of dust that glistened in the fluorescent lighting. Ben followed her in silence.
Behind the time-expired office gear was a plasterboard partition containing two nondescript fire-doors, each of which bore a plastic sign with the legend “Warning: Authorised Personnel Only. Hard Hats To Be Worn.” Someone had taped a handwritten sign between them that read, “No disposal of furniture in this zone.”
Miss Cardigan selected the right-hand door, typed a number into the keypad and went through, Ben in her wake.
The room inside was just another concrete alleyway. He saw that several of the cable-guides from the garage terminated here in a pile of equipment. A single half-empty rack of computing hardware sat forlorn in a corner, beeping gently to itself. Two large metal cupboards bracketed the rack. Someone had hung a tarpaulin on the far wall.
“Is that a directional WiFi antenna?” asked Ben.
“Well done. It is indeed.”
“What’s it doing down here?”
Miss Cardigan regarded him with the air of a mildly discombobulated Sphinx. “I’m a little surprised you noticed the antenna before the smell.”
Smell? He inhaled cautiously. The scent of warm, wet rot permeated the air. “Bins?” he guessed. “Stagnant groundwater? Is it the drains?”
“Not quite,” she said briskly, “but what an interesting guess.”
She pulled the tarpaulin aside, exposing the pale concrete to a blindingly sudden flood of yellow-pink light. The smell of rot redoubled. She opened the left-hand cupboard and took out two pairs of fishermen’s waders. “What’s your shoe size? You must be about a size ten?”
Ben wasn’t listening. He was staring. Behind the tarpaulin were a pair of propped-open security doors, framing a concrete sill about four feet long which sloped gently down into the waters of an endless, placid sea. There were no clouds in the dreaming sky. There was nothing there but a hazy orange smog stretching across the shining horizon.
“This is the key, you see,” said the librarian cheerfully. “It’s the cost of electricity, cooling and physical space that makes modern data science so expensive. When we found out about this parallel dimension the potential was immediately clear. Fresh water is a very economical approach for the management of waste heat.”
“It’s a lake?” said Ben.
“In a basement.”
“Would you have preferred an attic? It could be arranged.”
Ben shook his head. “I’m speechless,” he said.
“Evidently not,” said Miss Cardigan tartly.
“Well, I’m sorry, but it’s a bit difficult to take this entirely seriously. Quite apart from anything else, how exactly does building a data centre in a lake help to reduce your electricity bill?”
“Interesting you should say that,” said Miss Cardigan, tucking her smart jacket carefully into her trousers. “That’s something we’ve been wrestling with for a while. We started with tidal power, but the water is quite still. As far as we can make out this dimension has no moon, and therefore no tides. So we tried solar power, but as you can see, there isn’t a great deal of direct light. Eventually, Professor Whitloaf suggested geothermal energy. We’ve had a grad student down here since last week exploring the feasibility of sinking a bore.”
A Zodiac boat was zigzagging its way across the water, leaving a vee of disturbed water in its wake.
“There he is now,” she added, pulling the waders up over her knees.
“But why?” said Ben. “Supposing I accept any of this, and I’ll tell you now that I’m having a little difficulty, why didn’t you build the data centre here? Why did you build it so far away?”
Miss Cardigan said, “As a matter of fact, we laid the foundations right in front of the door. That’s when we discovered that the interface drifts a little bit. It would’ve been nice to fix that, of course, but we had to move ahead with construction if we wanted to complete the works in the current financial year, so we bought the Zodiac. If we’d stopped to perfect the technology, the university would’ve clawed back the funding and we’d have had the devil’s own job getting any more.”
“Oh,” said Ben.
“So we simply attached a radio beacon to the interface here and another on the platform, and we recalibrate every hour or so using a tracking device Elec Eng built out of a couple of old games controllers.”
The Zodiac was piloted by a scowling student, holding a Nintendo handheld console in his free hand. Ben thought maybe he’d met him before. Then he wondered if they’d both been at the same job interview and decided not to mention it.
At the speed of the boat, hot air hit their faces like the rotten breath of a vengeful god. The garage door fell away into the shimmering horizon as the platform on which the data centre stood grew into a lurking presence on the lake, a beacon of noise twelve feet tall, raised on concrete legs a foot above the lagoon’s calm waters. It was bordered by a pier.
Inside, Miss Cardigan took off her waders and replaced her sensible shoes. Ben took the hint and fumbled his smart leather brogues back on, silently cursing the decision, so carefully taken at the time, to buy lace-ups instead of slip-ons.
She led the way into an office, where they found three people sitting around a standard-issue conference table, slightly chipped.
“Meet Sal,” she said, indicating the short-haired woman on the far left, tapping industriously at a Dell laptop. “She’s our systems architect.”
Sal muttered something inaudible and went back to her PC.
The student next to her, who Ben still couldn’t place, said, “We’ve met before.” Ben nodded and smiled and hoped he’d work out the guy’s name eventually.
“And this,” said Vera, with the air of one who is working towards a grand revelation, “is Professor Whitloaf.” The Professor was short, grey-haired and wearing a multicoloured sweater under a tweedy jacket, an ensemble that seemed far out of place in the heat. “All, this is Ben. He comes to us from Oracle, where he’s worked extensively in large-scale storage deployments.”
They looked at Ben. “Hi,” he croaked.
“Good to meet you at last, Ben,” said the Professor.
And from that point on, as dictated by ancient tradition at every workplace in which Ben had ever worked, the meeting proceeded as if the new arrival were a stain on the wall; unwelcome, but easily ignored.
The agenda began. Item 1: minutes of previous meeting. Item 2: water quality. Item 3: algae growing in the liquid coolant pipes, and the consequences of the aforesaid for the upcoming HPC deployment.
Despite the zombies Ben surreptitiously drew into his spiral-bound notebook, his concentration had more or less failed him by the time Professor Whitloaf turned the conversation over to Item 4: ‘Power generation and management’.
“Are we on schedule with the geothermal solution?” asked the Professor.
Miss Cardigan fixed her attention on the grad student, who shrugged.
“Yeah,” said the student, “well, we started the borehole on schedule, but first we hit organic matter. ‘Course we’d expected that. The whole place is up to here”, he waved a hand at waist-height, “in silt. But then we hit something that carried an electrical charge and totalled the drill. So we did some tests.”
There was a brief pause.
“Turns out,” said the student, looking just a little smug, “something down there is giving off 400 pulses a second at fourteen hundred volts. DC, that is.”
Ben opened his eyes and put down his pen. Free energy from a hole in the ground?
The professor nodded solemnly. “Tried digging a second hole?”
“Yup. Same thing. This time we insulated the drill first.”
“Hmm,” said the Professor. “Very wise. What an interesting result; can we use this?”
“Electrically?” said the grad student. “Oh, sure, with an inverter. Could do with more power, though.”
The professor ticked Item Five solemnly off his agenda. “Then dig some more holes,” he said absently, “and let me know how that goes.”
“Wait,” said Ben. They stared at him.
“Yes?” said Miss Cardigan kindly.
“Don’t you want to know where the power’s coming from?”
The professor made a dismissive gesture. “Not specially,” he said. “Milestones first, Ben. Research later.”
“Doesn’t it matter?” Ben tried.
“Does it matter to you?”
Ben gave up. “Fair enough.”
The meeting adjourned. A gaggle of students, including Ben’s nameless colleague, took a punt back out onto the lake. The others went outside to the pier, where they drank coffee and discussed the optimisation of WiFi connection speeds across variable distances over a humid lagoon. Ben’s decaf tasted faintly of algae.
The exit seemed to have approached the platform since the morning. Ben took out his mobile again to check the time, finding with a queasy sense of unease that he did not even have an emergency call signal.
A drill whined in the distance, in the direction of the punt. The students were digging holes again, it seemed.
“Yes,” said the professor testily, “a wired link would certainly be faster, but we’d have to rewire every time an elastic event occurred-“
The heat and the stench were soporific. Ben hadn’t slept well the previous night: the stress of a new job. He rubbed a sweaty palm over his forehead. He’d dressed for the first day of an office job in a British autumn. At least, he reasoned, nobody would be likely to mind if he took off his tie–
Somebody screamed. The lake gave an almighty heave and rose up to devour the punt, drill, students and all, in a single flash of fierce electric blue.
Something greasy and marbled rippled underneath the water.
A great wave rose from nowhere and slopped over the pier. A sudden rush of wind rippled their clothes. The horizon contracted alarmingly.
The lake heaved around them, water sliding down a gradient that hadn’t been there until a moment ago.
“Was that a fin or a tentacle?” asked Miss Cardigan sharply.
“Good question,” said Professor Whitloaf. He folded the agenda and minutes neatly into a small bundle and slipped it into the inner pocket of his coat. “Vera, I think it’s time to leave.”
It was a close thing. Unused to the nautical life, Ben was thrown from the Zodiac when a questing movement beneath the water caught the boat and sent it skipping from wave to wave. Fortunately the lagoon was shallow and he found his feet fast. It was, as the student (now destined to remain forever unnamed) had told him, hip-deep in silt. He felt wet gunk spread into his shoes and thought glumly of the damage to his second-best suit.
For a moment, he wished he’d had time to put his waders back on. Then he felt the silty ground tremble, contracting beneath his feet in a horribly organic way. From that point on, the only thought in his mind was reaching the improbable doorway.
He scrambled for the concrete sill, hoping to reach it before whatever it was that was in the water with him figured out where, or what, he was.
Ben was the last out. Sal pulled him out of the water, and they stood at last on the concrete floor, damp and bruised and stinking of pondweed.
Outside the security doors, an immense wall, glistening greasily, rose up into the air. After a while, it began to block out the sky.
The air filled with ozone. A halo of lightning outlined the beast with hot, transient blue sparks. Ben’s skin crawled.
The professor cleared his throat gently. “With regret, I think it’s time to close down the pilot experiment. Miss Cardigan, if you would?”
“Right you are,” said Miss Cardigan. She kicked away the wedges holding the doors open. The doors crashed noisily shut.
“Physics aren’t going to like it,” said Sal. “That’s a year’s data collection, wasted.”
“Everybody knew the risks,” said Miss Cardigan.
Professor Whitloaf said, “In a general sense that is indeed true, although I don’t think our risk analysis specifically mentioned the possibility of accidentally building a data centre on a member of the family Torpedinidae, however outsized the individual.”
“Torpidwhat?” said Ben, faintly.
“Torpedinidae? A member of the family of the electric ray. My suspicions were raised by the electrical charges discussed earlier, as I’m sure were yours, but I must admit that the size of the entity rather took me by surprise.”
“Oh,” said Ben.
“Yes. Although renewable energy sources are generally welcome, perhaps it would, on this occasion, have been better to look our gift source in the mouth….”
Miss Cardigan turned a red power switch on the wall, counted to ten and reopened the security doors. Ben cringed, but there was nothing behind them but a store cupboard half full of props for a university performance of “Grease”.
“Oh good,” said Miss Cardigan. “I thought we’d thrown that away. The drama club will be happy.”
Ben breathed deeply. “This place is a madhouse,” he said.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. There’s method in our madness,” said the Professor. “Although I admit that we might’ve worked a little harder on our risk assessment in this case. Vera, could you review operational procedures to cover this? I’d like to make sure we document it all. Get it all on paper. Lessons learned and so forth.”
“For what?” cried Ben. “You’ve closed it down, haven’t you? You’re surely not going to try all this again, are you? People died!”
“Oh, yes, it’s a great shame, and naturally we wouldn’t dream of–but dear boy, there’s still the backup site.”
The Professor tucked his waders neatly into a locker. Then he opened the right-hand cupboard and pulled out a beekeeper’s hat.
Miss Cardigan said, “It’s quite a pleasant place.”
“Apart from the bees?” cried Ben, an octave too high.
“If you wait for perfection, you’ll never get anywhere,” said the Professor jovially. “Start with the low-hanging fruit. Warm, sunny and uninhabited. Finding an insect-free paradise would certainly be nice, but it isn’t in the critical path of this project.”
Ben regarded them thoughtfully. Then he unhooked his university ID from its lanyard around his neck and placed it gently in the librarian’s hands.
“What’s this?” said Miss Cardigan.
“I’m sorry to have wasted your time,” said Ben gravely. “I genuinely appreciate the fact that you gave me a chance, but I just don’t think this is going to work out.”
“But what about your three months’ notice?“
Ben shrugged. “Sue me,” he said, and left. Ignoring the distant sound of a great swarm of hornets, he made his way to the elevator without a single backward glance.